A real work of ark

A secular female artist painstakingly restores centuries-old Italian arks.

ark 88 (photo credit: )
ark 88
(photo credit: )
Less than two months before it is due to be the focal point of a brand new synagogue in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, the two-centuries-old ark lies dismantled, its pieces strewn in different corners of a small workshop hidden away in the center of town.

The ark, built in 1795 and originally from Mantua, Italy, once held the Torah scrolls for Italian communities. Now, after three years of intensive restoration, the once glorious ark will find its third, and hopefully final, home in the new place of worship in Jerusalem.

The new synagogue, which is being built in honor of the kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri, has already cost well into the six-figures in order to accommodate the antique ark.

To estimate the extreme care involved in restoring an antique, imagine the amusement of the restorers when the synagogue's architect stared, aghast, at the black panels in the ark doors: "Can't they be a different color?" he implored.

Making any changes in the original coloring is, of course, completely out of the question, explained Noga Shusterman, head of the restoration department at the Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem.

Shusterman is currently experimenting with different shades of gold paint on strips of wood, trying to create the correct hue to complete the regilding of the ark's wooden carvings in time for the consecration of the new synagogue.

At the Italian Museum where she works is a much larger exhibit with which many Jerusalemites are already familiar - the interior of an entire 300-year-old synagogue transplanted from Conegliano, in northern Italy. Still housing regular services conducted according to the Italian tradition, it is but one of several synagogues in the country to boast an Italian presence.

Unbeknownst to many, about 35 synagogues in Israel are home to centuries-old arks - which are not only older than the synagogues themselves, but with the exception of Jerusalem, are also older than the towns in which those synagogues are situated.

Reminiscent of the pre-WWII Jewish communities in which they resided, the arks come from synagogues all over Italy - all credited to the hard work of Dr. Umberto Nahon, one of the leaders of the Italian community, who realized after the Second World War that a solution would have to be found for the dozens of Italian synagogues whose communities were deported and dispersed during the Holocaust.

In the early 1950s, Nahon managed to organize the dismantling of close to 40 synagogues all around Italy, shipping most of their contents, especially the holy arks, to the young State of Israel.

Officials at the Italian Museum don't go into much detail about the operation, which was often done without the knowledge of Italian authorities. There was also a prominent feeling of guilt toward the Jews after the horrors of the Holocaust, leading the authorities to turn a blind eye to Nahon's work. Nowadays, with strict European laws on the exporting of antiques and artwork in effect, such an operation would be impossible.

Once they arrived safely in Israel, the arks were shipped to communities all over the country, most of which had no idea of the significance or value of the antiques which housed their Torah scrolls.

In fact, in most synagogues, the most expensive objects are the hand-written Torah scrolls, which fetch anything upward of $20,000, but in these synagogues it is the arks themselves which are priceless examples of original renaissance and baroque work.

Unaware of the historical value of these objects, the communities often did not preserve them correctly, and so the restoration team at the museum, led mostly by Noga Shusterman, began its work. Traveling around the country, from the Galilee to Moshav Rehava in the Negev, where a Yemenite community stores its Torah scroll in an 1802 ark from the town of Boccelo, the team locates the arks, appraises their condition, and either gives advice on how to preserve them or, for those not in constant use, removes them for restoration and relocation.

The ark currently undergoing restoration by Shusterman and destined for Har Nof was originally loaned to a synagogue in south Tel Aviv, on Rechov Chenlov. Upon their arrival, the representatives of the museum were surprised to find the synagogue locked up and abandoned - after the community dwindled and died out, services discontinued and the building was boarded up. When they finally located the keys, they found the synagogue was being used as an informal shelter of sorts for homeless people, and parts of the four-meter-high Mantua ark were missing.

After going to court to reacquire the ark after Tel Aviv City Hall forbade its removal from the synagogue, the museum is in the final stages of recreating the old glory of the ark, thanks to photographs of the original.

Often these old photographs are used to unearth as much information as possible about the original condition of the arks, and only after extensive research begins the long and careful restoration process.

The arks were originally built from the mid-16th century to the end of the 18th century, during a period of relative calm and prosperity for Italian Jews. Wary of competing with neighboring communities, the synagogues were usually humble on the outside with increasingly elaborate interiors.

Art historians believe the arks were constructed by non-Jewish craftsmen whose main trade was church decorations - alongside the Jewish emblems, for example, there are some less obvious Christian and pagan motifs, such as shell-shaped carvings that symbolize the birth of Venus.

Today, these ornate exteriors are covered in centuries of accumulated dirt and soot, which must be cleaned to ascertain the original color of the ark. Usually this also requires the removal of paint that has been added. Then begins the tedious process of rebuilding, repainting and regilding the work of art.

Leading the work of the restoration of the Italian arks is Noga Shusterman, who was first attracted to the art of restoration 16 years ago when, as an 18-year-old, she visited the Vatican in Rome. On seeing Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel covered in scaffolding, Shusterman was at first disappointed.

However, after realizing that the complex restoration process revealed the grime-covered masterpiece to the world, she became fascinated.

Following her army service and a trip to the Far East, Shusterman returned to Italy to an art school in Como, near Milan, where she spent two years learning the restorator's trade. Her own mother's family, the Padovanos, lived in Florence until 1938, when they fled to Palestine and escaped the war.

Once back in Israel herself, Shusterman's first major project was the restoration of a 1543 ark from Mantua, the oldest ark in the Museum's collection, and for Noga, this was an unbelievable start to her career.

"After training in Italy, I could never have imagined that of all places, back home in Israel, I would begin working on original renaissance objects," she said.

As a woman, her work has been particularly interesting given that all the synagogues housing these ancient arks are Orthodox - meaning Shusterman is busy restoring objects to which she, as a woman, would normally never have access. But that doesn't bother her.

"In all the visits I made to synagogues I've been treated with the utmost respect," she said. Only in one case, at the renowned Ponivezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, was she forced to send a male colleague to inspect the largest Italian ark in Israel, a six-meter-high ark from Mantua built in 1635.

"The only time someone said something was in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, where for four years I worked to restore the Italian ark there. A haredi man shouted at me that I was desecrating it," she said.

Though her restoration of all the Italian arks is more than enough work for one career, the challenge she relishes most is the oldest ark of all. For Shusterman, the search for all the Italian arks was "my quest for the holy grail," and she even admits making visits to Machon Hamikdash, the center in the Old City dedicated to research and building replicas of various holy vessels in the Temple.

"I feel that the ark of the Temple is waiting for me somewhere," she said. Shusterman's dream may sound surprising coming from a young, secular Israeli woman - dreaming of finding the "lost ark" and rebuilding the Temple is usually only heard from the religious right wing.

Shusterman, however, sees it as the ideal combination of her professional aspirations and natural Jewish instincts.

"It doesn't matter that I myself don't pray at a synagogue," she said. "The fact that at such a young age, without even meaning to, I've had the privilege to be involved with restoring these arks, is to me so symbolic that I can't believe it's just by chance."